From Curation to Installation: The Thomas Sebeok and the Scientific Self Exhibit

What do gorillas, Finno-Ugric languages, the United States Army, and electromagnetic fields have in common? These seemingly disparate topics (among many others) were brought together in the voluminous intellectual grasp of Thomas A. Sebeok, 1920-2001. The prolific polymath enjoyed a long and distinguished career at Indiana University (IU) from 1943-1991. Sebeok started as Instructor and Linguist for the Army Specialized Training Program at IU, which provided intensive language training in Hungarian and Finnish for U.S. soldiers. After World War II ended, Sebeok stayed at IU as faculty. His expertise extended to areas of anthropology, folklore, and linguistics. He oversaw the formation of academic departments (Department of Uralic and Altaic Studies in 1965, now known as the Department of Central Eurasian Studies) and research centers (the Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies) at IU from the 1960s through 1991. He simultaneously taught, gave lecture tours around the world, edited Semiotica for the International Association of Semiotic Studies, and wrote more than 600 articles and books over the years. Framing such a vast and deep scholar’s work for a modest archival exhibit proved to be a significant endeavor.

The legend himself: Thomas Sebeok, October 1976. IU Archives Photograph Collection, P0021757.

For this post, I want to provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the curatorial and installation processes for an archival exhibit. Before I came to IU, I worked at a regional art nonprofit. One of my main responsibilities was overseeing the organization’s three art galleries. I found that my experience with installing art exhibitions was helpful, but I also found that archival exhibits present unique challenges—and more exciting opportunities for storytelling. The wide varieties of archival materials and space for informative historical captions combine for a seemingly infinite array of possibilities. The first step I had to take, then, was casting a net that was wide enough to be visually appealing but tight enough to capture a cohesive single exhibit. This latter consideration was harder than I anticipated!

When Carrie and Mary approached me about this exhibit opportunity, I knew I wanted to focus on Sebeok. I’ve been processing his substantial (~100 boxes) collection since October 2017. He has become a major role model for me, especially his disregard for traditional disciplinary boundaries in academia. I wanted to highlight the web of intellectual roles he inhabited, from semiotician and linguist to zoologist and journal editor. I did not want the exhibit to look like a hodge-podge sampling of random bits from the Sebeok collection. This is where curatorial framing came into play. I asked myself: What is it about all these areas of Sebeok’s study that captivate me? Why is it important? I think it is because it illuminates the truly cross-disciplinary nature of “science.” I have always been fascinated and impressed by scientists, but that world has always felt closed-off from me. I never did very well in math and hard sciences, and firmly rooted myself in art and history. Sebeok has shown me that these things are not disparate, as they are all human activities and human attempts to understand the world. From this the exhibit title was born: Thomas Sebeok and the Scientific Self. To translate this to the exhibit space, I decided to dedicate each case I was using to a different role: Sebeok as a master of languages, Sebeok as an academic leader, Sebeok as a renowned semiotician, and Sebeok as a skeptic. Within these cases I selected different materials: visual resources to catch the eye (I love all the program brochures and letterhead in the collection), correspondence to tell stories, and signposts to guide the viewer (in the form of biographical materials like press releases and news clippings).

Planning all of this was a more physically involved process than I anticipated. Over the course of a few weeks I was constantly ordering, opening up, investigating, and returning boxes from the collection. For each item I wanted to exhibit, I photocopied the original, placed the photocopy in the original folder, and logged the item in a list indicating its original box and folder placement. This is all necessary to ensure I can return the items properly once the exhibit is over. Throughout this process, I had to cross-reference the dimensions of each case to plan the exhibit layout. Captions ended up being the biggest spatial challenge for me. I authored long captions because so much of the exhibit material is conceptually dense and needs contextual information to tell Sebeok’s story. I could have written pages more of caption text, but cut myself off so as not to overwhelm the viewer.

A roll of polyethylene book strapping, a piece of foam core, a utility knife, and a ruler on a table.
The basic tools of exhibit mounting: foam core, a utility knife, a ruler, and a roll of polyethylene book strapping.

Physically installing the exhibit was definitely the most challenging part of the exhibit process. I anticipated this from my time working in art galleries, but the difficulties were unique. I didn’t have to worry about mats or frames, but mounting unique archival paper materials was intimidating. To mount an 8 x 10 in. piece of correspondence, I would first cut a piece of foam core board exactly to those dimensions. Foam core can be irritating: it is difficult to cut through with a utility knife and it sheds constantly. Making sure none of the foam backing extends beyond the dimensions of the material takes a lot of careful trimming. After I cut the backing, I would mount the material using polyethylene book straps. This part required careful choreography to keep the original document flat against the backing while pulling book straps across each corner and taping them down on the backside of the foam core. There is no one perfect method for this: it takes a lot of patience, finger dexterity, and adjustments, much like matting and framing artwork. Clean hands and short nails are also a must-have!

An archival exhibit’s beast of burden: polyethylene book strapping.

Some of the exhibited items took some creative problem solving to display. In order to mount a large bound volume from the Smithsonian National Zoo to a particular page spread, Mary Mellon custom made a book cradle out of mat board and strategically applied tape—a technique she learned during a workshop when she was a graduate student. We then rested the publication in the cradle and strapped down the pages.

A bound publication is held open on an inclined mount.
The Smithsonian National Zoo publication on a book cradle made by archivist Mary Mellon.

To display both sides of a fold out conference brochure, I scanned one side of the brochure and printed it at the same dimensions as the original. I then folded the reproduction to resemble the original brochure and displayed it face-up so viewers could read it.

A reproduction of a brochure for a 1986 "Science and Pseudoscience" conference.
A reproduction of a brochure for a 1986 “Science and Pseudoscience” conference used to show both sides of the program.

The most awkward item to mount was also a highlight of the exhibit: a fundraising newsletter from Francine Patterson for the Gorilla Foundation featuring Koko the Gorilla’s actual signature. The newsletter was printed on one sheet of folded paper. I wanted to display two facing pages, one with Koko’s signature and the other with the bulk of the letter text and images of Koko with her kitten. To do this I had to mount the pages on two separate pieces of foam core. I could not use book straps to hold down the inner corners of the pages, since they were on the same sheet of paper with a fold in the center. This made the item tricky to move around once in the case. I ended up resting it on clear plastic displays for added stability.

A printed newsletter with pictures of Koko the Gorilla and the gorilla's actual signature in ink.
Mounted correspondence from Francine Patterson for the Gorilla Foundation. Koko the Gorilla’s signature is visible on the bottom near the middle (“Fine Animal Gorilla”).

I hope these examples show some of the overlooked skills needed in an archive. Working on an archival exhibit requires skills in paper conservation, object handling (similar to art handling in a gallery setting), matting, aesthetic sensibilities, writing, and curation. It also takes time, collaboration, and a hearty dose of creative problem solving. Above all, I like to think that Thomas Sebeok would appreciate the eclectic matrix of skills that went into this exhibit.

Thomas Sebeok and the Scientific Self is on display now through March 29, 2019 at the Indiana University Archives (Wells Library E460, East Tower).

Sincerely Yours – Letters from the Archives: Theodore Roosevelt Draws the Line

When Carl Eigenmann (renowned ichthyologist, Indiana University Professor of Zoology and Dean of the Graduate School, and Curator of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh) set out on the 1918 Irwin research expedition to Peru, the possibility of failure was not far from his mind. He even wrote President Bryan a last will and testament of sorts, providing for the disposition of his research, specimens, and equipment “in case the submarines or other vermin should get [him].”

Yet it was not a German submarine that nearly scuttled Eigenmann’s expedition, but the U.S. State Department’s heightened scrutiny of German-Americans during World War I. After departing from Bloomington in June 1918, Eigenmann and his assistants, IU graduates Adele Eigenmann and W. R. Harris, were delayed in the port of New Orleans for five weeks. As Eigenmann, a German-born, naturalized U.S. citizen, put it, “The Passport Division of the State Department, while conceding that my name was euphonic, considered it too Teutonic and refused me passports.”

Indignant at the delay, Eigenmann went straight to the top with his protests. Besides writing to the presidents of IU and the University of Illinois, which granted Harris a fellowship for the journey, he appealed to former president Theodore Roosevelt and asked him to intercede with President Woodrow Wilson on his behalf.

Theodore Roosevelt delivering the 1918 IU Commencement address
Theodore Roosevelt delivering the 1918 IU Commencement address

Roosevelt’s well-known fascination with natural history, in particular with gathering specimens and trophies through large-scale, international expeditions, had made him a natural ally of Eigenmann’s in years past. In 1916, Roosevelt wrote to Gilbert Grosvenor, President of the National Geographic Society, to secure $3000 for the expedition, stating that Eigenmann was “of all the men in this country the one best fit to get the best results out of just this trip.”

Roosevelt also proved himself a friend of Indiana University in general, having given a rousingly patriotic commencement speech in Bloomington in May, 1918. But when Eigenmann requested his assistance in securing passports, he had not counted on the extent of the bad blood between Roosevelt and Wilson, who were campaign rivals during the 1912 presidential election and differed widely in attitudes toward American intervention in Europe during World War I. Roosevelt responded, apologetically, to Eigenmann’s request as follows:

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Carl H. Eigenmann, July 5, 1918.

SAGAMORE HILL.

July 5th 1918

Dear Dr. Eigenmann,

I am very sorry, but I cannot appeal to Wilson for any human being; and moreover the surest way to hurt you would be to have him think I was interested in you. I am wholly unable to understand the folly or worse of refusing to permit your Peruvian expedition.

With regret [and] indignation,

Faithfully yours,

Theodore Roosevelt

Despite Roosevelt’s unwillingness or inability to help him, Eigenmann’s other contacts were able to exert pressure on the authorities, and the expedition proceeded, albeit with a shortened itinerary. Eigenmann later reported that he suspected a rival scientist as the instigator of the passport controversy. As he wrote in his June, 1919 report to the Board of Trustees, “Someone, who I was informed was interested in having me vacate the position of Curator in the Carnegie Museum, filed charges against my loyalty.”

Who knew that the field of natural history could be so full of intrigue?

Effa Funk Muhse: First Woman Ph.D. at Indiana University

Effa Funk Muhse
Effa Funk Muhse

Effa Funk Muhse made history by being the first woman Ph.D. student at Indiana University. Born on June 19, 1877 in Blachleyville, Ohio, she and parents Laban and Eliza (Bair) Funk, moved to Hebron, Indiana in the 1890s, where Effa later graduated from Hebron High School in 1894. She attended the Northern Indiana Normal College (now Valparaiso University) until 1896, when she left to begin teaching in the public schools of Indiana. On August 12, 1899, Funk married Albert Charles Muhse, and soon thereafter enrolled at Indiana University under the name “Funk Muhse” in September 1900.

During the summer of 1902 she was named a fellow at the IU Biological Field Station on Winona Lake in Warsaw, IN. There she taught embryology, histology and histogenesis. She went on to receive all of her degrees in zoology from IU, earning her A.B. in 1903; her A.M. in 1906; and her Ph.D. in 1908. Her husband would receive degrees in economics from IU in 1901 and 1902.

Effa Funk Muhse, "Heredity and Problems in Eugenics" 1912
Effa Funk Muhse, “Heredity and Problems in Eugenics” 1912

Conferral of Muhse’s 1908 zoology degree gave her the distinction of being the first woman at IU to receive a Ph.D. The title of her dissertation was The Cutaneous Glands of the Common Toad and was published in the May 1909 issue of the American Journal of Anatomy. Muhse’s dissertation refuted others research that said common toads had several different types of glands. She showed that the glands were all of the same type – just in different stages of development. She began her research on this paper at Cornell University where her husband had been given a fellowship. She returned to IU during the 1907-1908 school year to accept a fellowship and to teach while finishing her dissertation under the direction and advisement of Professors Carl Eigenmann and Charles Zeleny.

After obtaining her Ph.D., Muhse was interested in teaching, but found it difficult to find a position that accepted married women. Instead, she began teaching on lecture circuits, giving her attention “…more especially to questions of public health and to general biological questions.” She decided to settle in Washington, D.C., and gave public lectures at clubs near her home there, as well as around the country and in China. Hoping to return to the state of Indiana to teach, Muhse contacted IU President William Lowe Bryan in October 1911 with a list of topics to which she could speak. Lectures she offered for 1912 included “Heredity and Problems in Eugenics,” “Insects as Agents in Plant Fertilization,” “Non-contagious Diseases: Deafness, Adenoids and Nervous Troubles,” “The Food of Schoolchildren,” and “The School as a Center of Sanitary and Health Work in the Community.” During these years she became a pioneer lecturer on the Mendelian Laws of Heredity, on rural sanitation, and eugenics.

Laboratory Notes and Drawings
Laboratory Notes and Drawings, undated
Laboratory Notes and Drawings
Laboratory Notes and Drawings, undated

 

 

 

 

 

 

While in Washington, D.C., Muhse became involved in women’s suffrage, becoming a member of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), founded by Alice Paul. In 1917, Muhse was sent to Idaho, Pennsylvania and Chicago to help organize the NWP. Reflecting upon this work in an interview with the Indiana Alumni Magazine in 1963, she said she still urged “…women to ‘continue the struggle for equal rights.’ She believed that the greatest change in the role of the woman…came with the right to vote. At the same time, she felt that rearing families is still the most important work of today’s women, putting ‘minor office jobs’ a poor second.”

Drawings of Cells on Cards
Drawings of Cells on Cards, undated
Drawings of Cells on Cards
Drawings of Cells on Cards, undated

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Between 1921 and 1927, Muhse began teaching at several institutions, two of which were the National Park Seminary and the Colonial School for Girls. In the fall of 1927, she became the head of the Biology Department at Chevy Chase Junior College in Washington, D.C. and continued to teach there for 21 years, substantially increasing the enrollment of young women in biology classes, as well as throughout the field.

During her lifetime she was a member of the Eugenics Education Society of London; American Association for the Advancement of Science; Phi Beta Kappa; Sigma Xi; the National Woman’s Party; and the Twentieth Century Club of Washington, D.C. Her favorite hobbies were drafting house plans and carpentry. Muhse died on February 27, 1968.

Those interested in learning more about Effa Funk Muhse and her academic publications should feel free to contact the Indiana University Archives for assistance!


References:
http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/archivesphotos/results/item.do?itemId=P0021529
http://indianapublicmedia.org/momentofindianahistory/effa-funk-muhse/
http://wayback.archive-it.org/219/20081210131943/http://homepages.indiana.edu/2007/04-20/story.php?id=1303

IU Professor of Zoology Conducted Research across the World

IU Professor David G. Frey’s papers recently opened to researchers at the IU Archives. Hired as Professor of Zoology in 1951, Dr. Frey taught in Bloomington until 1986. Dr. Frey was a specialist in limnology (acquatic ecology) and an authority on the Cladocera (water flea) . At IU, he established a laboratory containing over 10,000 specimens (now housed by the Smithsonian in the Museum of Natural History).

In addition to his teaching and research at IU, Dr. Frey was active in several national and international limnological organizations. Due to his involvement, which included serving as president of the American Society of Limnology and as executive vice president of the International Association of Limnology, he traveled extensively to attend conferences and to conduct research on lakes around the world.In all, he visited forty-four countries across six continents. (He never made it to Antarctica.)

Photographs and postcards from some of his travels are included in his collection at the Archives.

Hungary

Dr. Frey traveled to Hungary in 1967 to attend the first International Symposium on Paleolimnology. During the Symposium, the attendees visited Tihany, a village in Hungary on the northern shore of Lake Balaton.

Hungary 1
A view from Lake Balaton of the village, Tihany, and a Benedictine abbey (top of the photo).
A view of Lake Balaton in Hungary.
A view of Lake Balaton in Hungary.

USSR

In 1962, Professor Frey visited the USSR as part of the National Research Council exchange with the Soviet Academy. He spent most of his time in Borok, Russia, a small, protected area in the southwestern portion of the country. Heavily forested, Borok is home to a variety of birds, including a colony of grey herons, and raccoon dogs. Visits to the region are limited to fishermen, hunters, and scientists.

Main Street in Borok, Russia.
Main Street of the small community in Borok.
Borok, Russia.
Research pond at Borok.
Borok, Russia.
Road toward pond used for Dr. Frey’s research near Borok, Russia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Austria

In 1953, Dr. Frey won both a Fulbright and Guggenheim award giving him the opportunity to study lakes in Western Europe and Austria. (He won the Fulbright again in 1985 to teach in Ireland.)

Dr. Frey exiting an Amerika Haus, likely in Austria.
Dr. Frey exiting an Amerika Haus, likely in Austria.
Dr. David Frey working on research, likely in Austria.
Professor Frey working on research, likely in Austria.

 

A partial list of the countries where Frey conducted research includes: Czechoslovakia, Nepal, Malaysia, France, Iceland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Uganda.

To see the rest of the photographs or to learn more about Dr. Frey’s travels, contact the University Archives. The Frey Papers also contain his published articles and research notes.